All articles in the series, “Is The UMC really…?” are available here.
For the past two years, Ask The UMC has received and answered over 2,000 questions from congregations wondering about the future of The United Methodist Church.
The legislation authorizing disaffiliation for local churches wishing to leave the denomination expires at the conclusion of 2023. In this lull between the regular U.S. annual conference sessions and a series of special sessions focused solely on disaffiliation (August 5-December 9), it is a good time to take stock of where the process of disaffiliation is to date and what might be expected in the months to come.
We continue to welcome your questions and invite you to contribute to future articles in this series by sharing what you are hearing about the process of disaffiliation or the future of The United Methodist Church. Write to [email protected].
Is The UMC really…?
43. Down over 20% relative to the number of congregations or members it had before disaffiliation began in 2019?
There are two answers to those questions. One is “not really.” The other is “we’re still tallying.”
First, the 20% figure that has been stated in many media outlets in recent weeks refers only to the percentage of churches in the United States that have disaffiliated. Disaffiliation is available only in the United States. United Methodists in the United States make up about half of all United Methodists worldwide, with U.S. congregations representing closer to two-thirds of all congregations in the denomination worldwide.
There were 30,541 United Methodist congregations in the United States as of 2019. U.S. annual conferences have approved 6,225 congregations for disaffiliation (as of August 5). This means about 20.4% of U.S. congregations have been approved for disaffiliation.
This baseline is official. The actual disaffiliations total, however, is not. And it may not be for some time. The General Council on Finance and Administration is responsible for collecting, collating and reporting the official statistics of The United Methodist Church. To do so, it depends on annual conferences sending them their statistical information, including churches disaffiliated, closed, merged, federated or otherwise no longer functioning as United Methodist congregations. Conferences report to GCFA at their own pace. Some may choose to delay reporting until after the conclusion of all special sessions and the submission of 2023 year-end statistics in the opening months of 2024.
Many conferences have sent their reporting of status changes for congregations fairly promptly. The same may not be the case for church membership statistics of the churches that have disaffiliated or otherwise changed status. Membership statistics may take longer to compile, and so it may be longer before conferences send membership statistics for GCFA to collate and report.
44. Mostly done with disaffiliations at this point?
The answer depends on the meaning of the term “mostly.”
The majority of the 53 annual conferences in the United States have completed the disaffiliation process entirely, either at or before the current regular sessions of this year’s annual conferences. There will be no more disaffiliations in these conferences.
However, 25 annual conferences have scheduled at least one special session to consider requests for disaffiliation between Aug. 5 and Dec. 9, 2023. Florida has scheduled two (Aug. 5 and Dec. 2).
Of these 25 conferences, five have seen fewer than 50 congregations disaffiliate to date. One of these anticipates its first and only disaffiliations at its special called conference later this year. Fourteen have had over 100 disaffiliations. Others have reason to anticipate substantial numbers. In North Georgia, for example, 186 congregations had filed a lawsuit whose outcome required the conference to schedule a special session to enable the conference to vote on their disaffiliation.
Thus, while the majority of conferences have completed the disaffiliation process, it is possible a substantial number of additional congregations may be disaffiliated by the end of 2023.
45. Unsure how many more churches will request disaffiliation in 2023?
While the same paragraph in the Discipline governs all disaffiliations (Paragraph 2553), each annual conference has its own policies and deadlines for its disaffiliation process.
We know when annual conferences have scheduled their additional special sessions for disaffiliation through the end of 2023. Whether, when and how conferences publish how many churches are requesting disaffiliation varies widely by conference.
Some conferences require congregations requesting disaffiliation to have all relevant information to the conference office weeks or months in advance of the special session so this information can be published on the conference website well ahead of time. Some publish the number and names of churches requesting disaffiliation on their websites shortly before the special annual conference session. Others publish none of this in advance on their website, and instead send this information only to the voting members of the conference. Nearly all publish the number approved for disaffiliation soon after the special session.
At this point we know of 46 churches that are requesting disaffiliation in Florida and one in Oklahoma. The Dakotas Conference indicates it will post its workbook for its Aug. 15 special session on its website on Aug. 7. No other conferences with subsequent special sessions have published information about numbers or names of churches requesting disaffiliation.
So, at the time of this publication (early August 2023), we do not know and cannot accurately anticipate the total number of churches that will be presented or approved for disaffiliation in the subsequent special sessions this year.
46. Raising apportionments for the congregations that remain part of The United Methodist Church?
Generally speaking, no.
The number of congregations paying apportionments has decreased in many conferences because of disaffiliations. This does not mean the remaining congregations automatically pay more.
First, disaffiliating congregations pay two full years of apportionments (current year plus one more) to offset the conference’s loss of their funds for the first year of their absence. This gives annual conferences a bit of a financial cushion and some time to consider how to reshape their ministries in light of a reduced number of congregations.
Second, each conference sets its own budget in its annual conference session. Each conference’s council on finance and administration prepares a budget proposal it believes will ensure the mission of the conference can be accomplished while also being sustainable for the congregations of the conference. The conference council will not submit and the annual conference will not approve a budget either believes is not sustainable. This, in itself, creates a check on major increases in apportionments to local churches, regardless of the number of churches that may have disaffiliated or closed.
Third, conferences where the number disaffiliations has been the highest and the impact the greatest have already scaled back conference staffing and programming or are in the process of doing so. Many conferences are reducing and reorganizing districts to reduce costs. Some conferences anticipate being combined with other conferences following the 2024 sessions of the jurisdictional conferences. These reductions and realignments will also keep conference budgets in line with the number and financial capacity of their congregations.